In his popular series with Russell Brand, Books with BraNd, Professor Brad Evans has been joining Brand to discuss the social and philosophical implications of a range of classic literature. This week’s episode explored A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and now Wales Arts Review is delighted to feature an essay by Evans, exploring the poignancy of Dickens’ classic novella in more detail and asking whether Scrooge would have a place in today’s world.
The scene told a familiar tale. A country blanketed in a misty frost as the arrival of the biting colds summoned forth a new season of sorrows across these depressed lands. Still, the poor and destitute waited in line, collectivised in desperation, their visible breath yet another sign of how even the atmosphere was conspiring against them. Perishing fingers trembled as they hoped for the warm touch of the charitable hand to mitigate their plight. What were the best of times, for a few, had become the worst of times for the many. Entire communities felt the harsh frozen realities of poverty, unable to heat their homes and having to make dire choices over whether to warm their meals or warm their children. Meanwhile, City exchangers profited from the misery, trading on crystallised tears, while others robbed, begged, and stole an existence. But who really were the gangsters in these towns? And who would give audience to those voiceless children, who dared, as always, to ask for just a little more as their caskets of despair led the socially minded back to the alienating and ruinous grave from which the demonic spirit of capitalism emerged? If there was a carol to be sung, it was a bittersweet lament, which faded into the muted silence of the cortical night.
Faced with these conditions that are seeing thousands live in extreme hardship as we are today; it is understandable why many have claimed our times look remarkable Dickensian. There is a bleakness out there, in both material conditions and spirit, and it’s dressed in a mournful shade of blackness. But what does it mean to make such historical comparisons? Can history always be our guide and even a sorrowful comfort as the ravages of winter take another blistering hold? No doubt, how we have come to picture the wretched conditions of Victorian Britain owes a great deal to Dickens, who was not only responsible for grimly painting the hardship that defined the unforgiving streets of the Capital City of London, but also giving agency and voice to the marginalised, the disposable, and the forgotten. Dickens is also another stellar example of the reason why the literary imagination remains one of the best guides we have in terms of understanding social and political affairs, for it is within the realm of the imagination where we get closer to the truth of being human.
Mindful of this, I would like to turn attention back to arguably the most celebrated of all Dickens masterful stories, the timeless classic A Christmas Carol. Beyond the advent of its wintery occasion and the persuasive claim its author largely invented the Christmas festivity as we have come to know it, I am compelled to ask what could be gained from rereading its prose as communities, such as the former mining areas of the Rhondda valleys where I was born, are becoming increasingly defined by food banks, energy poverty, and all trapping of a neglectful state? Once again, I am also reminded how Dickens partly wrote the book in response to “The Employment and Conditions of Children in Mines and Manufactories” report published a year before the book came out in 1842. The Ghost of Christmas Present would take the novels main protagonist to a “bleak and desert moor where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about as though it were a burial place of giants”. The horrors of the present leading directly to “a place where miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth”. A place however where those who dwelled there always found reasons to rejoice.
Dickens tale is familiar to most who have sought to find some kind of magic and restitution in blizzards of unforgiving times. Residing at the heart of this book, like all great literature, is the epic story of tragedy, purposefully humanised with the dusting of dark humour. “Marley was dead”, Dickens starts his novella, “to begin with”. Everything else follows. And it is how we as individuals and societies deal with the fates and fortunes of such forebodings that gives the book its enduring appeal.
Before dealing with the particular tragedy or should we say multiple tragedies shaping Dickens seasonal classic, which has enjoyed countless adaptations, I would like to make a few remarks on the importance of time. We should not forget the books mystical and unsettling appeal resides precisely in its traversal hauntings that sweep across the historical moment. It is a story both ephemeral in its otherworldly impression and grounded in the solidity of a world marked by firm industrial markings as sure as any precision clock that would chime at the stoke of One, which combined had the author proclaim his wish to let loose “the ghost of an idea”. But what is that idea if not the phantom forces of one’s relationship the ghosts of the past, the spirits of the present and the apparitions from the future which are thrown together into a dizzying kaleidoscopic vision of a life? We are always in the presence of ghosts, Dickens reminds, especially those that shadow our hearts. And it is how we learn to listen to them, which becomes the source of our own transformation.
Christmas is a haunting time. It is marked by the spectral memory of lives taken. There is no merriment without the thoughts of those with whom the occasion is no longer shared. Early morning phone calls, afternoon arrivals, precious small gifts, rekindled emotions, how soon they become part of an occasion that cannot prevent the absences from entering through the keyholes. Those ghosts always find a way in, for the doorway is always within us. Yet such ghosting’s must be especially difficult when memories turn to the loss of a child. For Christmas is ultimately a story of childhood. Its where our fondest and most tragic memories are hung alongside each other like glass baubles for all to see. We all know what those silent moments represent in the thoughts of loved ones, family, and friends. And so, we are continually taught at this time of year about how love is indelibly imbued with a sense of tragic, for to love is to also confront its earthly passing. Furthermore, it is within the tragic where we find reasons to love as we also realise to echo the words of Scrooge’s nephew, we are all “fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys”.
A Christmas Carol is a tale of two tragedies, which also traverse the logics of time. There is the heart wrenching tale of a tragedy foretold, as the structural violence of destitution ends up claiming the life of young boy, Tiny Tim. This is a tragedy merely awaiting the smiting winds. A tragedy with no concern for innocence, for such sentiments cannot be entertained in austere times. But the second tragedy belongs to the past. This is a tragedy born of another kind of loss, which creates an irreparable wound. A tragedy that can turn a kind and humble person into a monster of a man. A tragedy deriving from the unrecoverable severing of love. A tragedy that would have us find comfort in something other than human connection. A tragedy born of an abandonment of what it means to be human. A tragedy that comes to mark and define the terrifying vision that is Ebenezer Scrooge.
Scrooge is a darkness surrounded by an even more impenetrable darkness. He who is indistinguishable from his shadow, already belongs to the emptiness. He personifies the coldness of being. He is the veritable abyss. We might recall here the poetic revery of Dante, who gave us a vision of hell that was not ablaze but resided in the frozen depths of torment and despair. Scrooge belongs to those depths. He is at home there. He befriends the misery, revels in the isolation, walks through its gates with a pessimistic howl. “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it”, Dickens retells of his uncharitable and barren homestead. The man who was abandoned as a child then abandoned love through his own (mis)fortune, instead finds security in the only thing that seems rational and certain, the soulless and technically engineered circumference of the metal coin. But Scrooge is not evil. He is merely devoid of care and responsibility to his fellows. His soul is as cold as the steel nail, which Dickens invokes from the outset to describe his dead partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge in short, is dead while alive, “secured from surprise”, emotionally adrift from the fires of the world. A social death born of a singular attachment to the bleakness of money and cold-hearted wealth.
Of course, Scrooge’s behaviour would stand out as markedly different from the ostentatious and lavish displays of wealth that were so often paraded by the merchant colonists of Victorian Britain. Theirs was after-all a time of extraordinary Palatial splendour. And let us not forget, while Dickens was writing the complementary social tales of Oliver Twist and Bleak House, the wealth extracting machine of the British Empire was in primal overdrive (especially in the mining colonies). But what matters is not whether Scrooge is exuberant or thrifty. His penance must be explained through the quest for accumulation above all else, the desire to find value and meaning in the purely determinable, shallow, and inhuman vestiges of the currency exchange, the substituting of a life for another kind of connection, which ultimately binds us together through a litany of soulless deeds and contractual obligations. The ghost thus returns here with considerable force. For whom really carries those invisible chains, Dickens has us consider? And does that not point to another kind of imprisonment – the real torment of isolation shrouded by an unbearable coldness?
Dickens confronts a wickedness that has no remorse for its own position. That is why the author turns remorse into a form of torture (as suffered by Jacob Marley and the other wandering apparitions) and makes the miserly protagonist compelled to witness the chains of lamentation and its deathly effects. Dickens turns the ghosts of the powerful into the powerless, so that they become forced witnesses without the worldly capacity to bring about change. It is another force belonging to a greater mystery that takes possession of the world. But aside from the evident radicalism of this position, what also made Dickens revolutionary for his time was precisely the idea that humans were not born evil or sinister. If A Christmas Carol has us reflecting upon the notion that residing even in the darkest of hearts, there is still the glimmer of a flame that is the spark of our humanity, it is also a tale of how we might all be the products of circumstance, irrespective of how much we believe we are beyond such embodied wretchedness. And it is recognising we all have issues to deal with, which might have us believe no person is incapable of transforming themselves, regardless of how set they appear. But this also demands more from us. Most would shed a tear for the mercilessly fated child who lays dead in the snow. Its far more difficult to help others break a frozen sea within, as we often excuse ourselves from reaching out to those who find no human reason to believe in this world, for the love they feel has been all but extinguished. Charity works in mysterious ways, Dickens advises. It concerns both the materially and spiritually impoverished.
Yet has this not all been turned back upon itself? For if Dickens provided a powerful social critique of the extractive violence of capitalism, whose greatest victim was precisely the extraction of what makes us human – what makes us love and feel loved (the basis of any viable sense of community), it shouldn’t be lost on us today that Christmas has become thoroughly commodified and its meaning so often stripped of its spiritual aspiration. If the ghost of Christmas past might remind us of all the wasteful products we have bought, the ghost of the present would still have us buying more, while the yet to pass would have us still unfulfilled, because the desire to find meaning in stuff is never fully satisfied. This is not however a call to give ourselves over to some post-material existence. Most of our desires are after-all in today’s post-industrial age of the most purely immaterial kind.
Dickens was a materialist. He knows that bread matters. But where his brilliance resides is to invest objects with subjective resonance. Doorknockers become harrowing faces, staircases become passages into the desolation of the empty withering heart, and the flickering candle a threshold point between the frosted breath of an aging man and the ephemeral smoke of a ghostly passenger. He who lived for too long and felt too little is one breath away from the wisdom of the ancestral for whom the icy vapour is but a trace of a soon to be extinguished life. Questions then of the mystical cannot be denied here. Indeed, if there is a singularity to this text, it is precisely concentrated in the centre of that blue melancholic flame, which symbolising a precarious existence burns in a twilight hour that is torn between wanting its stay and yet willing its vanishing. Death is every present in this novella, always at the moment of its arrival, yet still deferred all the same. Every stave is an interlude in a life that is catching its final gasps of air, dying before us as it has been perishing for so many years. A candle of hope and despair that leads into a fading purgatory, unless.
Despite all this, I am nevertheless minded that our crises laden times are different from when Dickens was crafting his tale. The early industrial landscapes narrated are consigned to the historical record. But that doesn’t mean to say the harrowing figures of Ignorance and Want have found refuge. At least during the industrial age there was a viable sense of community, which people found support in on a daily basis. There were public theatres for people to frequent and express their togetherness. There were libraries in which children collectively learned and bettered their plight. There were organisations that took seriously the local needs of impoverished peoples in personal ways, not just to medicate, but to assure through genuine appeals to solidarity and friendship. And there was the reliance of neighbours who helped one another through the hard times. Such bonds have largely given way to a vapid individualism, which parading as freedom has ended up having the poor fight amongst themselves, all the while the coldness of the digital screen provides the glittering dust of seduction. Moreover, while Dickens recalls how the “surplus population” was exploited in workhouses (much to the scorn of Scrooge who would without care have them work or have them dead), through automation, today we are creating “Armies of the Permanently Unemployed” who are being abandoned by an entirely different yet no less cold-hearted world.
Beyond this, there is another tragedy that takes it leave from the novella which we need to acknowledge today. Could a Scrooge have the room to undergo such a dramatic transformation in our cancellation age? In a time of unrivalled surveillance, hyper-judgmentalism, of never being able to shed what one has previously been known for in word and deed, would he not, like all of us who are visited by the tracings of the digital world, be forever haunted by the ghost of the past? Dickens was no doubt writing from a distinctly religious perspective, which still managed to reach across to touch something all too human in us all. Humanism and spirituality were not opposed. Yet in today’s apparently secular age, hyper-moralism is so emboldened, the past, present, and future so seemingly assured, the room for the unknown is all but denied. Scrooge would never survive the trials of Twitter and the moral policing that screenshots every indiscretion. But this is no surprise. We have lost the mysticism, we have lost the capacity to fail, we have lost the ability to be as fallible as a Scrooge, and most importantly of all, we have lost the spirit of forgiveness that could be afforded to people who are utterly disagreeable. Hence, while we need to read Dickens mindful of too much literal comporting from the 19th Century into the present, we also need to be ever appreciative of its deeper concerns that raise fundamental questions about the human condition.
To end with, then, if I haven’t made the case enough already the final plea I would make as to why A Christmas Carol should be read again is precisely the novelty it brings to one of the deepest of all philosophical questions. From Plato onward, it has been argued to philosophize is to learn how to die. Philosophy is all about learning to live through the tragedy of life and come to terms with the finitude of existence. But through Scrooge, Dickens has us go a stage further. As Ebenezer is brought face to face with his own disregarded tomb and the grave reality that in the final act of reckoning, none of it mattered for all that was solid truly vanishes into the vaporous air, so he is forced to look back upon his life as if he were already dead. It’s not only the death of a young child that jolts him into a profound response. Nobody can live solely for the other. We need to find our own reasons to believe in this world. The revolutionary move Dicken thus has us finally entertain is to consider what one’s own life may look like from the perspective of our own death, which is always with us and will always accompany us until we take that last cold breath. How might each of our lives change, were we to properly be open to the company of that apparition? Only the ghosts of time will tell.